A Charming Village Deep in the Mountains
Text: Cheryl Robbins
If you really want to get away from it all, deep, deep into the mountains, the Simakusi (Smangus) Community in Jianshi Township of Hsinchu County is where you will want to be. This small settlement is made up of fewer than 30 households and less than 200 people, mostly from the indigenous Atayal tribe.
In the Atayal language, the village is referred to as Smangus. According to the elders of the tribe, Mangus was one of their ancestors, and the name Smangus was given to commemorate and honor him. Simakusi is the Chinese transliteration of the name. To make things even more confusing, the name Smangus actually refers to the mountain on which Simakusi is located, and other villages also located on this mountain may be referred to as Smangus as well. So, to avoid confusion, you might want to stick with the name Simakusi, as has been done in this article.
Although Hsinchu County is not far from Taipei, visiting Simakusi is no day-trip. This is one of the more remote settlements in Taiwan, located at an elevation of about 1,500 meters above sea level. After getting off National Freeway No. 3 near Hsinchu City it is still a 60-kilometer, three-hour drive along winding mountain roads. The last 16 kilometers require almost an hour, as the road is narrow, with heart-stopping hairpin turns. As the tops of several mountains come into view in the distance, you will feel that you are literally on top of the world.
As the tops of several mountains come into view in the distance, you will feel that you are literally on top of the world
The road into and out of Simakusi was completed less than 20 years ago, in 1995. Before that, if the residents wanted to buy supplies or connect with the outside world they had to walk many hours and cross a river gorge.
The residents have a close connection to the land, and have made the conscious choice to live here. The Atayal consider Ren’ai Township in Nantou County to be the place of origin of their tribe. As the population of the tribe expanded groups moved northward and eastward, including to Simakusi.
During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895-1945), the colonial authorities forced the people of Simakusi to move to another part of the township. After the Japanese left Taiwan the people returned to rebuild their homes, farms, and lives. Although life was hard at first, without a road to connect them to the outside, their priority was on reclaiming the place where their ancestors had once dwelled.
As Simakusi is located high in the mountains, there is less worry about insect infestation, and homes can be built from wood. Walking through the village, you will see these rustic-looking buildings lined up in a row. The elementary school, which has only about a dozen students, looks very much like a log cabin. The residents have also built some traditional structures, including a watchtower and granaries. These are some of the elements that give Simakusi its charm.
All of the residents are involved in some aspect of tourism, and thus there are many opportunities to interact with them. In addition, this tight-knit community is working to preserve its traditional tribal culture. There are regularly scheduled tours of the village, and those leading these tours dress in traditional Atayal clothing. In the evenings there are gatherings at the local church, during which elders are invited to speak in the Atayal language, with translation into Chinese, and traditional Atayal songs along with more modern selections are performed by the youth of the village.
There are several trails to hike here, the most popular being the one that leads to a group of nine very old cypress trees – “old” meaning thousands of years old. It is a walk of about 5.2 kilometers from the village to reach the trees. Most of the trail is fairly flat, but parts can be muddy, so shoes with good traction are recommended. Allow four to five hours to make it to the trees and back.
According to the Forestry Bureau, the second- and third-largest cypress trees in Taiwan are located close to Simakusi
According to the Forestry Bureau, the second- and third-largest cypress trees in Taiwan are located close to Simakusi, measuring 20.5 meters and 19.7 meters in diameter, respectively. These trees were not discovered by accident, but rather through a long-term search by the residents. In 1991, a lin zhang (borough/neighborhood head) visited the Baling area of Fuxing Township in Taoyuan County and witnessed how the discovery of old trees there had increased tourism. That night he dreamt that there were sacred trees in Simakusi, and he remembered a story told to him by the elders about a place with big trees. Upon his return to the village he inspired the residents to help him search, and after three months they found the place the elders had described.
Even if you do not have the time or the stamina to finish this trail, any part that you do see will be spectacular. The trail features wooden bridges, small waterfalls, bamboo thickets, and a forest of trees that steadily increase in size as you near the end. There are also a couple of places where there have been landslides, startling reminders of Mother Nature’s sometimes fickle disposition. Thus, although this trail is not difficult, do pay attention to the surroundings and do not attempt the hike if there has recently been severe weather in the area.
To be able to enjoy all of the attractions of Simakusi, it is necessary to stay overnight. If you do so, you will discover the unique model for tourism developed by the residents of the village. Reservations for accommodation and food are all made through a single window, the Simakusi (Smangus) Visitor Center. This center is operated and managed by the village’s Presbyterian Church. The money that is brought into the community through its tourism activities is distributed among all of the households, so that everyone in the community benefits.
The accommodation is somewhat rudimentary, and more dormitory-style than homestay. Rates start at NT$1,600 for a two-person room with shared bathroom. There is a slightly more upscale four-person room with own-bathroom option (NT$5,000). Since it is mostly groups that come here, the only restaurant in the village has been set up to serve round-table groups. Those traveling with less than seven persons pay NT$250 per person for lunch or dinner. Breakfast is included in the room rate. The fare is mostly Chinese; thus, those wanting to try Atayal specialties may be a bit disappointed.
The community maintains a website with all of the basic tourism information about the village, including maps and the process for making reservations (www.smangus.org). There is currently only a Chinese version, so you will need the assistance of a Chinese speaker.
Getting There: There is no public bus service to Simakusi, so you will need to have your own transportation. From National Freeway No. 3, exit at Zhulin (toward Zhudong and Chonglin) and connect to County Road No. 120. After connecting to County Road No. 60 you will head into the mountains, passing the villages of Naluo, Tianpu, and Xiuluan. At Xiuluan you will come to a police checkpoint. You must stop here to fill out a simple form and show some identification, such as a passport or ARC (Alien Resident Certificate). This enables the police to make sure that everyone that heads into the mountains from here is accounted for. Just before Taigang Village, there will be a fork. Take the left fork toward Simakusi.
The visitor center in Simakusi can also arrange transport between the village and HSR Hsinchu Station/Hsinchu Railway Station (charges are made per vehicle; see contact info below).
Simakusi (Smangus) Visitor Center
Add: 2, Simakusi, Lin 14, Yufeng Village, Jianshi Township, Hsinchu County (新竹縣尖石鄉玉峰村14鄰司馬庫斯2號)
Tel: (03) 584-7688; 0928-804-983
Hours: 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Website: www.smangus.org (in Chinese only)
English and Chinese
Atayal tribe 泰雅族
Fuxing Township 復興鄉
Jianshi Township 尖石鄉
lin zhang 鄰長
Ren’ai Township 仁愛鄉